The hidden value of intangible outcomes


This week I attended the seventh-annual NID Design Summit in Bangalore (more on that later).  Gregg Davis from Design Central got me thinking about the connection between the lives of designers and social entrepreneurs. It’s a work in progress; I’d love to get your feedback.

Designers and social entrepreneurs share a few things in common:
1. They think with their hearts
2. They are chronically underpaid
3. Their interests lie outside the status quo

1. They think with their hearts
Both designers and social entrepreneurship require a great deal of empathy for the condition of others.  Not everyone desires the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes but both of these groups have created careers around immersing themselves in other people’s problems. 

Deciding to live in uncomfortable circumstances when you don’t need to is not a “rational” exercise.
Seeking to create desire rather than need is not a “rational” exercise.

2. They are chronically underpaid
Design and social impact outcomes are difficult to track.  The designer’s work is conceptual.  The value she creates is realized often years in the future.  The social entrepreneur’s work is distant from infrastructure.  The value she creates is often a public good or too expensive to quantify.  Since these outcomes are intangible, the economic value of the work is hidden and neither designer nor social entrepreneur can capture the maximum remuneration for their personal sacrifice.  But, like real estate: Labor costs what people are willing to be paid.  The non-financial benefits must make up the difference or the industry would not exist.  (I’m sure lots of people have written about this.  If you have any reading suggestions, please let me know.)

Recently, Acumen collaborated with Google to create a beta database that keeps track of the financial and social impact of their investments.  This is ground-breaking work because now impact data will be sharable and comparable.  Acumen can track the value it creates across investments, across time.  Acumen can learn more rigorously about its portfolio’s performance and communicate its impact more effectively. Once Acumen opens this database to other organizations, it can start a dialog about effective change. Might the design community also benefit from mechanisms that track the intangible value design creates?

3. Their interests lie outside the status quo
Designers and social entrepreneurs spend their days thinking beyond established systems. For the designer, it is in the unrealized future of goods and services.  For the social entrepreneur, it is what has fallen between the cracks of the public and the private sectors.  If all the problems of the world were systemically solved, neither designers nor social entrepreneurs would be needed.  We could all be artists and philosophers. 

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